German Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller listens during an interview in Regensburg,… (Lennart Preiss / Associated…)
Liberal Catholics believe a war on women is being waged not (or not only) by the Republican Party but also by the Vatican. If so, the women lost another battle this week with the pope’s appointment of a new head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the orthodoxy-guarding agency once headed by Pope Benedict XVI. The new prefect of the congregation is Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, and he opposes giving women even third-class status in the clergy.
First some background: In its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of nuns, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith raised several concerns. One involved “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” A related complaint was that some leadership conference officers had objected to “the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination.”
It was a reminder that, though many lay Catholics and some theologians favor the ordination of women as priests, the papacy remains set against it. The position of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is that Catholics must show “definitive assent” to Pope John Paul II’s 1994 statement that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”
But the pope said “priestly” ordination. The Catholic clergy comprises three orders: bishop, presbyter (or priest) and deacon. For centuries the only deacons were “transitional deacons,” young men ordained as deacons as a steppingstone to ordination as a priest. But after Vatican II the so-called permanent diaconate was restored and married men were ordained to the office. Deacons may not celebrate Mass, but they may baptize and preach and take a secondary role in the sacraments. (The son of some friends of mine was baptized in Washington by a lobbyist who had been ordained to the diaconate.)
Recognizing that female priests were out of the question, at least for the foreseeable future, some Catholics have nurtured the hope that the Vatican would agree to ordain women as deacons. Not only did “deaconesses” exist in the early church but, because deacons don’t celebrate Mass (in which the priest is considered a representation of Christ), there was no theological argument that they be men. Yes, female deacons would have a sort of second-class (or actually third-class) status, but they would be members of the clergy and able to take some of the workload off the shoulders of priests.
But Bishop Mueller will have none of it. In an interview republished by Catholic Online, he said that all three clerical offices -- bishop, priest and deacon -- are reserved for men. “If the deacon, with the bishop and presbyter, starting from the radical unity of the three degrees of the orders, acts from Christ, head and Spouse of the Church, in favor of the Church, it is obvious that only a man can represent this relation of Christ with the Church.” No women need apply.
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